The beauty of brokenness

An old building in disrepair, collapsing toward the ground.

A rusting, defective car, stuck in layers of mud.

Shattered glass.

Melting candle.

Cracked eggshells.

Chipped ceramics.

The sight of the simplest crack in a sidewalk can still my body, stun my soul.

The colors and textures of a simple, broken branch can inspire poetry.

It may be a bit bizarre, but brokenness really can become a gallery art piece to me.

I am in awe of the beauty of brokenness because I relate to the ordinary being an un-mended mess—a mix of decay and transformation. The objects all around me feel familiar because I have been broken and mended, again and again.

I love this poem about brokenness.

This Psalm also speaks to me, deeply:

Into your hands I commend my spirit;

you will redeem me, LORD, God of truth.

Be gracious to me, LORD, for I am in distress;

affliction is wearing down my eyes,

my throat and my insides.

My life is worn out by sorrow,

and my years by sighing.

My strength fails in my affliction;

my bones are wearing down.

Be strong and take heart,

all who hope in the LORD.

I am forgotten, out of mind like the dead;

I am like a worn-out tool.

I hear the whispers of the crowd;

terrors are all around me.

But I trust in you, LORD;

I say, “You are my God.”

Let your face shine on your servant;

save me in your mercy.

Oftentimes, it seems that brokenness is what helps me to become most in touch with my humanity; I know that this part of my nature doesn’t make me unique. In service and contemplation, I have touched physical and mental wounds in myself and others. I have heard people pour forth the worse of spiritual sorrow, anguish and misery. At times, my own doubts and struggles have been so intense that I felt incapable of doing anything but collapsing, quitting. Don’t we all feel dysfunctional, inoperable and crumbled in certain circumstances, in one way or another?

It seems to me that the season of Lent has much to do with this brokenness. As Holy Week nears and we enter into the most sacred days of the Church year, let us check in. What has happened in our hearts and in our lives as a result of our fasting, praying and penance in the desert? How have these desert days helped us to recognize where we are in need of mending, healing and reconciliation in our lives? How have our eyes been opened to the truth of our interdependence, of how we are made for community, for Christ, for others? How have we been transformed and changed? And what scars can we now bear more courageously?

A few weeks ago, I presented a program at the spirituality center where I minister about this passion of mine, the beauty of brokenness. After shared contemplation, we attempted to convey our reflections through the Japanese craft of kintsugi, which repairs objects with gold in order to highlight and honor the history of the object: the beauty of the cracks.

Here is where I learned about how to experience kintsugi, without becoming an apprentice in Japan.

During the workshop, we considered how we all might be like broken cups within God’s hands as we tried to piece them together—a complex, layered puzzle. Another poem, “The Perfect Cup” by Joyce Rupp, helped foster this reflection.

Honestly, I found it challenging to try kintsugi. My fingers became sticky, gold-spattered messes. I even cut my fingers a little on the broken cup I tried to repair. In the end, though, I really liked what I held in my hands.

In fact, I have decided that what I created is a perfect vessel for light, a beautiful place to burn candles within.

broken-cup-by-Julia-Walsh
Photo by Sister Julia Walsh

Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” includes the lyrics “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” My experience trying kintsugi and reflecting on my likeness to a broken cup in God’s hands caused a spin on Cohen’s wisdom to emerge.

I believe we all are broken so that God’s light can shine out through our cracks.

By God’s grace, let us be strengthened and transformed so we can see the beauty of our brokenness. With the arrival of Holy Week around the corner, may we be ready for God’s light to beam brightly from us all. May the resurrection energy shine through our cracks, so we can help illumine dimness near and far. Amen! 

Praying with my feet: called to El Camino

For over a thousand years, millions of pilgrims have walked across Spain to the Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James). During Holy Week, I will become one of those pilgrims.

This Lent, much of my energy and prayer has been focused on preparing for this pilgrimage. During this, I have found that God has taught me a lot about what it means to be called.

I’ll be walking the Camino Inglés with five other women, four of whom are Franciscan sisters in my congregation. The Camino Inglés is one route — the quieter, less-traveled one — of the pilgrimage that ends at the Catedral de Santiago in western Spain.

Our little group will arrive in Spain on Palm Sunday and begin walking on Tuesday. We hope to arrive at the Catedral de Santiago in time for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Each day, we will walk between 12 and 18 miles. Each night, we will sleep in very simple refugios. We will carry everything on our back and pray with our feet as we walk steadily over the trail that pilgrims have journeyed since the Middle Ages.

Nearly every day since Lent began, I have laced up my hiking boots and headed outside to walk several miles. I have been trying, physically and spiritually, to prepare myself for this journey. A few weeks ago, I even…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

“pack and poles” Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Anxious resistance

I had a knot in my stomach all day. I couldn’t focus at work. I lost my appetite. I felt exhausted as soon as I woke up. My mind was running with a thousand scenarios of things going wrong. I became keenly aware of that familiar feeling: a low-grade but persistent anxiousness; a lump that sits somewhere between my heart and stomach warning me of something to be feared; an impending lack of control.

It was March 1, 2017. Ash Wednesday. For the past three weeks I had been meeting with fellow community members of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker and our friends from the Mennonite Worker to plan a vigil and direct action. Our intent was to lovingly, but boldly, address the American Catholic Church’s reluctance in naming the xenophobia and racism that have characterized Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and presidency. We sought to implore Archbishop Hebda and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to release a public statement directly addressing the rise of xenophobia in our Church and society.

Cathedral of St. Paul, courtesy of Joe Kruse

After work I sped home to prepare for the action. My mind was spiraling as we packed our car with a banner, ladders, candles and ropes. I thought of my heroes and their steely determination. Their seemingly complete lack of fear. I thought of the iconic photo of Dorothy Day picketing with Cesar Chavez, calmly gazing into the eyes of a police officer right before her final arrest at the age of 75. I thought of Daniel Berrigan on trial for burning draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. Seemingly unaffected by a pending threeyear sentence to federal prison, Dan boldly proclaimed to the court, “We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty and if necessary our lives: the violence stops here.”   

With my mind and heart racing amidst a cascade of doubts and fears, I felt like I had missed the memo. The seeming difference between my anxiousness and their prophetic conviction was laughable. I wondered about Dorothy’s doubts and Dan’s fears. Did they have them? Or had God given them some kind of divine courage for holy conflict that rendered their doubts and anxieties obsolete?  

And, most importantly, when will God give that to me?!

As a white Midwesterner, conflict avoidance is my cultural bread and butter. Growing up, tension or disagreement were to be feared and resented. They were signs of something gone irrevocably wrong; something over which to feel tremendously anxious. Yet here I was, about to help manufacture an almost-assuredly tense situation within a Church I call home. I found myself doubting, searching in vain for Dorothy-like divine courage. Is this worth it? Am I doing the right thing? Is the conflict, the worry, the anxiousness necessary?

Dorothy-Day
Image of Dorothy Day by Bob Fitch

While I wrestled with these doubts, fears and questions, a small inner voice (which I often resent) assured me that Jesus’ answer would be a resounding “Yes!” It’s become painfully clear to me I cannot claim to be Christian and deny Jesus’ call for direct action, which leads to inevitable conflict and anxiousness. While it’s incredibly important for me to take care of myself and not stretch beyond what I can handle, Jesus’s social vision clearly calls the most comfortable of us into discomfort. As in Mark 10: 17-27, Jesus did not lovingly challenge the rich, young man to give safely within the confines of comfortable charity but to relinquish all his wealth for the service of others.

Jesus’ is an orientation toward loving and creative tension; a tension resulting in Christ’s inherent opposition to oppression. Soon before he was crucified Jesus and his disciples staged a direct action at the Jerusalem temple, confronting temple authorities’ collaboration with the Roman Empire and exploitation of the poor. In analyzing Jesus’s incident at the temple, the biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg writes in his book “Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark” that “Judaism was not the problem [for Jesus]. The problem was the imperial captivity of the temple and its authorities’ collaboration with the Empire.

In her “National Catholic Reporter” article Jamie Manson explains that many American bishops likely refrained from critiquing Trump’s hateful campaign rhetoric because of social and economic gains to be gleaned from his presidency. She writes, “In the course of the presidential campaign, the bishops’ conference put out one press release about promoting Catholic-Muslim dialogue and one release about “partisan divides” on migration issues. But as Trump inspired hate-speech, xenophobia, bias crimes and violence toward women, the bishops remained mum … the evidence suggests that the bishops’ conference threw under the bus the needs of these vulnerable peoples for the sake of advancing their anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, right-wing religious liberty agenda.”  

The bishops’ behavior is tragically similar to the conduct Jesus condemned at the temple within his own religious tradition. Their silence is proving lethal. President Trump has engaged in an unprecedented campaign of intimidation and violence directed at many of the most oppressed and marginalized. Much of his executive action is in direct contradiction to the core of Catholic social teaching. In an attempt to follow Jesus’s call into discomfort and to mirror the loving tension he manufactured within the religious institution he called home, I came to see our Ash Wednesday action as not only necessary on a political level, but completely in line with my Catholic identity.

I have also come to see the inevitable anxiousness as not only necessary but also sacramental. While I must be aware of my limits and the reality of unhealthy anxiety, especially in the form of mental illness, I see some level of anxiousness as a gift; a signpost on my journey toward Christian discipleship. An indication that—with God’s help—I can to learn to embrace fear and then to let it go.

We pulled up to the Cathedral of St. Paul during the evening Ash Wednesday service, gathered our equipment, took a deep breath and were off. We ran up the stairs and leaned extension ladders on the two large marble pillars framing the cathedral’s front door. Two Catholic Workers ascended the ladders and hung a large banner reading “Speaking up for unborn lives more than black and brown lives is white supremacy – #silenceissin” across the door, calling on Church hierarchy to condemn racism and xenophobia with as much tenacity and consistency as it does abortion.

banner-cathedral
Banner hung from Cathedral of St. Paul, courtesy of Joe Kruse

After hanging the banner we spent 20 minutes in silent prayer. Several of us engaged with passers by and church goers leaving Mass. We encountered a range of reactions from disdain to joyful support. Eventually, a priest came out with a small group of men. He read the banner, immediately instructed the men to tear it down and quickly moved back inside, choosing not to engage with us. (Check out this time-lapse video of our experience.)

Before leaving we sang a beautiful but haunting rendition of the Kyrie. As the doleful melody rose into the snowy sky, I felt the anxiousness drain from every limb of my body. What replaced it was a confident calm and deep joy. In that brief moment, I felt the fortitude of Dorothy and Dan within me. I let the cold air slowly fill my lungs, breathing out all the tangled thoughts, unraveling the knot in my stomach. The anxiousness died and resurrected, transformed within me. Another deep breath. I was right where God was calling me to be.

Note from the Editor:

Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis Bishop Bernard Hebda makes reference to these events of Ash Wednesday in the March 9 edition of “The Catholic Spirit.” Read it here.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Krusea friend of Sister Julia through the La Crosse, Wisconsin, community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse. Now he spends most of his time working at Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

 

Marked

 Most days, our schedules are clogged

with avoidance: We’d rather ignore

the inevitable smudge of human decay.

 

This morning though, Ash Wednesday,

we step into lines and confront

the truth of pain.

 

We allow strangers to mark us

with a message of paradox.

 

Remember, you are dust. To dust you will return.

 

Flecks of once joyous palms, now black grime

Color the firm skin of the young,

Fall into the creased skin of the old.

 

Repent and believe in the Gospel.

 

In somber silence we gaze at faces

that will all end up in the grave.

A unity emerges with fresh freedom.

 

Life after death.

 

Off to meetings, appointments, repentance or avoidance—

yet some will wear their marks with pride.

We all are moving in the same direction.

 

Photo credit: FreeImages.com
Photo credit: FreeImages.com

Signs of spring in Lent

During this Lenten season, more than any other Lent, I am getting how significant it is that Lent means spring.

Lent is also a time for us to connect to the meaning of desert; to magnify the event of Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days to prepare for his public ministry in our own lives.

As a Midwesterner, I don’t know much about deserts. I’ve visited some deserts in places like Namibia and New Mexico though, and have always found the environment very strange and mysterious; it’s not really barren as a lot of life and beauty thrives in the dryness. I certainly don’t know much about springtime in such a landscape, but I understand that desert dwellers also experience the season—just very differently than we do here in the Midwest.

Yet, I know Lent is really not about the dryness and emptiness we associate with deserts—even though it’s often what fasting feels like at first. Rather, Lent is about signs of spring: refreshment, renewal and growth.

We manifest these signs of spring to each other as we offer gestures of love, kindness and service to one another during these 40 days. Our actions make us into signs and transform the world around us. We freshen the environment, the culture, and our community and make marks of preparation. In a way, our actions become like little party decorations that get us really ready for the power, mystery, conversion and celebration that happens in Holy Week.

Our Lenten actions are definitely signs of spring. Our prayers, fasting and almsgiving are vibrant signs of hope for a hurting humanity. Our works of mercy in motion can be encouragement for each other, when we keep flopping and failing in our Lenten practices, getting discouraged and realizing, again, how much we need God.  As we share Christ’s love may we keep our eyes open and see the green life coming forth from each of us, and may we keep our ears open to hear the beautiful, encouraging songs of the returned birds.

The signs of spring are all around us in this Lenten desert. May we lean on each other as a beloved community and see each other as signs of real renewal and hope.

Amen!

photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

Recycled Lenten lessons

So far this Lent, I have already encountered the parts of me I don’t like.

As I try to stay dedicated to my Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, I seem to keep catching a glance of myself in the mirror: I see that I am a sinner, I am weak, I am broken. Over and over again I face the truth: I must be totally dependent on God and God’s mercy.

I’ve been talking to God through prayer about this familiar cycle that I go through every Lent (and during ordinary time too.)

It shouldn’t be a surprise, really, that my struggles repeat because I’m consistently dealing with the same person: me.

And then I thought about some Lenten Messy Jesus Business posts from the past that remain meaningful to me. I’d like to share them with you!

Here are 5 of my favorite Messy Jesus Business posts about Lent:

1.) “This is HARD” by Jerica Arents, April 8, 2011,  is a reflection on how the inconvenient fasts from plastic, sugar and electricity ultimately brought her closer to her community.

2.) “The weirdness of witnessing,” February 28, 2012.  The season of Lent freed me to be real about how I don’t always like to be “out there” and share my faith for many reasons, but one is because when I sin then it can reflect badly on all Christians. Bonus: “What if I stumble?” (a song by DC Talk) is mixed in!

3.) “Lent: Divorcing our bad habits,” March 3, 2013.  A British indie pop band Autoheart has a really catchy song called “Lent” and it inspired me to think about which bad habits I might need to “divorce” in order to gain true freedom in Christ.

4.) “Becoming a new fruit and fertilizer by Amy Nee, March 21, 2013.  Amy writes how compost became her Lenten mantra as she worked to get back to the basics of her faith. Some wisdom from the 13th century mystic and poet, Rumi, is incorporated beautifully.

5.) “Ashy Remembering,” March 7, 2014, is a poem about distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday and remembering my own mortality and need to repent as I touch other human faces.

What Lenten reflections and prayers speak to you during your time fasting in the desert this year?

Photo credit: http://fccgreensboro.org/2014/through-the-desert-lent-2014/

French braiding my way to a holier Lent

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

I am trying to teach myself how to French braid hair. As the mother of two daughters, one of whom was able to donate 10+ inches of hair at age three (with pigtails to spare), I feel that mastering this skill now is a savvy investment in my future time management.

My first attempt at a French braid several months ago was pathetic. Upon seeing herself in the mirror, even my four-year-old felt the need to be gentle with my ego, reassuring me in a Daniel Tiger-inspired pep talk: “Well, it’s not the best … But keep tryin’!  You’ll get better!”

She was right, of course. After months of disastrous braiding attempts, I can now send my daughter to school with her hair in a style that is (if not quite red carpet-ready) at least identifiable as a French braid.

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

It occurred to me, while doing my daughter’s hair on Ash Wednesday, that a French braid is a pretty good metaphor for the Lenten spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Throughout Lent we are meant to attend specifically to these three “strands” of holiness; weaving them together, bolstering each one as we proceed. They should be united in a tight, well-ordered plait. If we neglect any one of them—if, for example, we fast but do not pray—then our Lenten braid is lumpy and uneven.

My Lenten braids are always lumpy; at times, they are so disheveled as to be unidentifiable. I tend to begin Lent with lofty expectations of my imminent spiritual accomplishments, only to be disappointed by the reality of my own clumsiness. I usually have to “start over” at least once before the end of February.

But, just like French braiding, the more time I spend attempting to fast, pray, and give alms, the easier it is to do so … and the more natural it feels to integrate one into the other, weaving them together.

Though fasting is only one-third of the equation, it’s typically the “celebrity” pillar of Lent. In past years, I have taken the path that Pope Francis advocates: fasting from a specific uncharitable attitude or behavior. This year, though, I wanted to try to assume those fasts of the soul into a more traditional fast of the body: specifically, abstaining from alcohol.

As I politely decline a glass of wine with dinner, I am reminded to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the necessities and luxuries I can enjoy this day, and—before bed—I donate the cost of a drink to charity. In researching the charity to which I wish to donate today, my mind and heart are opened to the multitude of crosses that others bear, and the multitude of ways in which I could train my fingers to better be the hands of Christ in easing their burdens.

I fumble; I fail; I begin again. The more I practice, the tighter the strands become.

By the end of Lent, I emerge with a braid: imperfect and unglamorous, but nonetheless beautiful in God’s eyes.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she is attempting to teach herself some basic middle-school skills. Next up: sewing on a button.

 

 

Lent: Time to make some changes

Last week, I bemoaned Lent’s fast approach on Twitter:

Ready or not, Lent is here and it is time to get into it—time to get into the spirit of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to experience great conversion during this sacred season.

It’s time to make some changes.

On this Ash Wednesday we are marked with signs of Truth: all of us are sinners, all of us need to repent, all of us have humanity in common. The fact that we came from dirt and shall return to dirt is one of the great equalizers among us.

Photo credit: http://adamsartgallery.com/art-from-ashes/

Because we are not God we all are imperfect, and must work together for growth and development. No matter which Lenten practices we commit to today, let’s remember it takes a lot work—two months on average—to really change our habits.

The ashes say it: Lent is a time to remember how connected, how communal we’re designed to be. As we change and become better together, let us remain patient—let us be compassionate when changes come tough.

Together, then, changed by our Lenten practices and the grace of God, let us unite as one and return to God with all that we are.

Amen!

Technology habits and the connections that really matter

Over the past five years, I have gradually become attached to a laptop. A couple of months ago, I reluctantly got a smart phone. Of course I know I am not all-that-strange for these personal facts, but as one who prefers to be more centered on my spiritual life and my relationship with God than on things, I actually feel ashamed to admit that I spend most of my time interacting with machines.

Of course, the technology can aid me in my connecting to God and neighbor, right? It’s a tool I get to control how I want, right? It doesn’t control me, does it?

Well, a quick assessment of my day reveals that I do, in fact, use technology to connect with God and serve others. I use the Daily Catholic and CRS Rice Bowl apps for prayer. I frequently listen to hymns and read Scripture reflections online. And, I certainly use technology for acts of service and activism and help moderate a Facebook group called The Vocation Discerners (which I founded years ago.) I certainly stay in touch with my dearest friends and family through email, Twitter, Facebook, texting, and even Instagram. Of course my ministry as a writer here and elsewhere requires technology too. These are not bad things!

Still, I am not proud of how much of my life is consumed by technology usage. In this season of Lent, a season that invites consciousness and conversion, I’m trying to honor my cravings for less screen time and more soul-centered time. This focus is causing a clearer portrait of the roots of my struggle to come into view.

A writer I greatly admire, Sara Zarr, recently wrote a reflection of her Internet history of the past twenty years. In the piece, she shares how she began this Lent with the intention of tracking (and possibly changing) her Internet habits. She acknowledges how using it has its pros and cons, and much of her patterns of usage are ultimately rooted in the core human need to connect, to relate. As for her Lenten intentions and possibly changing those patterns, she states “it turned out Lent … happened to be a time where I got to see and experience and lots of reminders of why I wanted to change it in the first place.”

I really appreciate Sara’s honesty about her tendency to use the Internet compulsively. She said it, but I’ve experienced it too: “It is the easiest, fastest way to relieve a moment of loneliness, to procrastinate, to fill a void, to get an ego hit, a dopamine rush, approval…I mean, we all know how that works. It’s hard to turn off and look away.”  Whoa, doesn’t she just name exactly what continues to drive us all online? Certainly, much of the shame and guilt I feel about my own technology usage is due to the things that drive me into it—not because of the fact that I am using technology itself.

Source: Pandodaily.wordpress.com

Spirit is involved in all of this. God is with us in our loneliness, in our habits of avoidance, in our needs for approval and connection. Spirit invites us into holiness and health, not disappointment or frustration. If we let the tools of technology lead us to the right places of prayer and communion, we can meet God, deepen our relationships, and serve others. But, if our human weakness and its sinful nature gets the best of us, we can lose control and technology can become self-serving or even an addiction.

Much of what’s at work is our living in a bit of gap. There’s a gap between our preferred behaviors and our actual behaviors. We can find God in this gap and discover ways to serve others, live in community, to share and participate. That’s what living the Gospel is all about.

It’s part of the reason why the Time article about the “sharing economy” fascinates me so much. I couldn’t help but to think about Jesus’ mission when I read about how many people are giving of their time and resources in order to connect with their neighbors or complete strangers (and yes, at times, to earn a bit of money) by sharing their car, their stuff and their meals. Our Gospel living is about connecting, relating and serving. It’s about communion and building community. It’s about willing the good of the other. If technology helps us with that, then it indeed can be a tool used for God’s purposes.

As we ponder the signs of this time, such as what is occurring in ecology, I believe that technology usage demands our attention. On this topic Ilia Delio writes, “…We humans are becoming something new with technology. Technology is evoking new patterns of relatedness which now include an artificial device. Hence, we need an operative definition of IT as ‘intentional technology.'”

As it turns out I need not be ashamed about my technology habits, as I’m united with many in my dilemmas. Instead, I can heed the invitation of this Lenten season and let my increased consciousness influence my choices. By the grace of God, I can change and become more intentional in my use of technology. With more intentionality I shall gain more freedom. By the grace of God, we all will.

Friday stations

It’s another Friday in Lent. It’s a day of sorrow and penance as we remember Jesus’ death on the cross.

Many of us are fasting in a bit of an extra way today. Some are abstaining from meat and other pleasures. Others are gathering in churches to pray the Stations of the Cross.

station 8
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

 

As community, we unite and remember the challenge and truth: Jesus suffered pain and gave of himself for our sake, because that’s the nature of true love. Truly, love willingly gives of oneself (even suffers) for the good of the other.

Thank you, Jesus, for loving us and giving of yourself for our sake! Amen!